“A CRISIS IN THE CHURCH”
In March of 1887, Charles Spurgeon’s monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, published the first installment of a two-part article about what he called “The Down Grade.”
In it he decried what was beginning to rear its head in the evangelical church. He said…
(“Preachers are becoming) less earnest and less simple in their preaching, more specula-tive and less spiritual in the matter of their discourses, and (are dwelling) more on the moral teachings of the New Testament, than on the great central truths of revelation. Natural theology (theology derived from observation and experience as opposed to theology derived from divine revelation) frequently (takes) the place which the great truths of the gospel ought to (hold), and the sermons (are becoming) more and more Christless. Cor-responding results in the character and life, first of the preachers and then of the peo-ple, (are) only too plainly apparent.”
The next month The Sword and the Trowel published the second installment of “The Down Grade.” It asked, and then answered the questions, “How does this happen; why does this happen?” Again I quote…
“In the case of every errant course there is always a first wrong step. If we can trace that wrong step, we may be able to avoid it and its results… Is it doubting this doc-trine, or questioning that sentiment, or being skeptical as to an article of orthodox belief? We think not. These doubts and skepticism are the outcome of something going (wrong) before.”
So what was that “wrong first step?” Was there a common denominator? And if so, what was it? The article continues…
“The first step astray is a want of (a lack of) adequate faith in the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures. All the while a man bows to the authority of God’s Word, he will not entertain any sentiment contrary to its teaching… But let a man question, or entertain low views of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and he is without chart to guide him, and without anchor to hold him.”
If you thought this downhill slide toward theological liberalism is something we’ve only wit-nessed in the last few decades, you’ll recall that this wasn’t written last week, last year, or even last century. Remember that these things were taking place in the late nineteenth cen-tury. This was 1887! The evangelical church (the church that claimed to believe in Jesus, His gospel, and the Bible) was already beginning to lose its trust in the sufficiency of God’s Word.
These articles and the ones which followed shook the evangelical world to its very core. Spurgeon accused the church of usurping the values and techniques of the theater and trying to “improve” the gospel by making it somehow more palatable to the masses.
As you might expect, the more pointed and direct Spurgeon’s accusations became, the more he was berated and disdained by the churches. But he could not be ignored. Eventually he was attacked by his opponents and even accused of being mentally ill.
But here is the great irony. No one ever disproved even one of his allegations about what was being done to the evangelical church. No one ever denied any of his charges because no one could. But he was eventually censured and forced to withdraw from his denomination. Spurgeon’s fight for the authority of God’s Word and the purity of the church had taken a toll on him. He died on January 31, 1892.
Did the problem – “The Down Grade” – get fixed? Did the evangelical church finally come around and see the error of its ways and rectify the problem? Not at all! Since Spurgeon recognized and exposed the problem in 1887, it has only gotten worse. In the nearly 130 years since, the evangelical church in England has all but disappeared. And the evangelical church in America, while still visible and claiming to esteem the Bible, appears to be headed down the same road. Why? Are evangelicals throwing their Bibles away? No, they are not. The issue isn’t a lack of Bibles. The issue is a lack of faith in what their Bibles say.
Last Sunday we looked at Acts 11:19-30. Luke told us about the church at Antioch. It had been established by Gentile believers and would become the “home port” for Paul, Barna-bas, Silas, and the others who accompanied them on their missionary journeys to Asia and Europe. We saw that Antioch was a good church being blessed by God. We cited six things that made it a good church.
• The Christians in Antioch told people about their Lord and Savior.
• They understood what the true gospel really was.
• They extended grace to all people everywhere.
• They were led by the example of godly pastors and elders.
• They dedicated themselves to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word.
• They gave from their hearts, trusting God to meet their own needs.
And as a result of all of that, Acts 11:21 proclaims, “…the hand of the Lord was with them.”
The week before last, as I studied and prepared for that sermon, I was struck by how far so much of the modern evangelical church has strayed from those basic principles and charac-teristics. The church used to focus on all of those things, and “…the hand of the Lord was on it.” But is it still? Or has much of modern evangelicalism only helped to accelerate what Spurgeon called “The Down Grade”?
This morning I want to take a step aside from our verse-by-verse study of the Book of Acts and take a brief look at the crisis in the church!
We’re going to consider some of the ways in which much of the evangelical church is actu-ally leading the plunge into what has been called “theological bankruptcy.” We’ll look at five separate yet distinct qualities that are slowly but surely becoming dominant in the evan-gelical church. The key thing about all five is this: While each one of them is separate and distinct, each one of them exists in conjunction with every other one. They are…
• An increasing trend to hire men who are more qualified to run a business than they are to shepherd a flock. (This is particularly true in larger churches.)
• Pastors who are more concerned about, “What a verse or passage means to me,” than they are about, “What the verse or passage means.”
• A gross misunderstanding of what true worship really is.
• An ever-widening gulf between sound doctrine and daily life.
• The average believer’s shocking biblical illiteracy.
As I said, every one of these issues is distinct in itself, but each one of them is inextricably linked to the other four. Why is this happening? It is happening because too many Chris-tians have lost their high view of God’s Word. They may pay it lip service, but that’s as far as it goes. Listen once more to Charles Spurgeon – “The first step astray is a want of (a lack of) adequate faith in the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures.” Thus begins what he called the “Down Grade.” But whatever you call it, the results will always be the same. At best, the church will be led by spiritual babies who will never become mature in the faith. And at worst, the church will be filled with people who think they are Christians, but are not.
They are the ones of whom Jesus spoke at the end of His Sermon on the Mount.
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of hea-ven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.
22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord,’ did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many mir-acles?’
23 “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me you who practice lawlessness.’”
In v. 21 Jesus is saying, “If you do not obey God, calling Me ‘Lord’ is meaningless.”
In v. 22 He is saying, “If you do not obey God, your good works are worthless.”
In v. 23 He is saying, “If you do not obey God, you will never enter into My heaven.”
It is all about obeying God and His commands. Listen please, saving faith and obedience to God are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are inseparable! John 3:36 says, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” How can you obey God if you don’t know what He expects of you? How can you obey the Son if you don’t even know what He has said?
The church has two primary and overarching tasks.
They are clearly enumerated for us in Jesus’ “Great Commission.” You and I have been called to evangelize the world and edify the saints. We are to preach the gospel and teach the Bible. Those two things go together. How does that take place? How does it get done?
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangel-ists, and some as pastors and teachers,
12 for the equipping of the saints (us) for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; (evangelize to build up numerically – edify to build up spiritually)
That’s how Jesus builds His church. But what is His purpose? Why does the church preach and teach?
13 …until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (That’s the goal.)
14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by crafti-ness in deceitful scheming;
15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ…
So you can readily see that the ultimate purpose for the church is to see to it the lost come to saving faith through evangelization and that the saints come to maturity through edification.
How can the lost be saved if they hear an incomplete or false gospel? (And isn’t an incomplete gospel already a false gospel?) And how can the saints be edified if they are “carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming…?”
It is easy to see the responsibility that God has placed on the church. And it is easy to see what happens when the church begins to shirk that responsibility. It becomes a crisis that, unless addressed and rectified, has eternal consequences. That’s what Charles Spurgeon saw seeping into the evangelical church in the 1880s. What would he see entrenching itself in the evangelical church today?
1. Spurgeon would see an increasing trend to hire men who are more qualified to run a busi-ness than they are to shepherd a flock. This is especially true in large churches where a pas-tor’s success is often determined by ever-increasing attendance. Pastors and elders are often sought after who have demonstrated success in finance, business, or industry. Such men often see themselves more as CEOs than pastors, teachers, and shepherds. Men (and now women) who are energetic and dynamic speakers are always at a premium.
Let’s be clear. Things like executive experience and dynamic speaking in and of themselves do not disqualify a man for the pastorate or for becoming an elder in the church.
But they have nothing whatsoever to do with a man’s spiritual qualifications. Executives’ resumes and corporate job descriptions enumerate the professional qualities expected of a CEO, but the Bible describes the spiritual qualities expected of pastors and elders.
*1 Timothy 3:1-7
1 It is a trustworthy statement: If any man aspires to the office of overseer (pastor; elder), it is a fine work he desires to do.
2 An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temper-ate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach,
3 not addicted to wine or pugnacious (wanting to fight), but gentle, uncontentious, free from the love of money.
4 He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity
5 (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?);
6 and not a new convert, lest he become conceited and fall into the condemna-tion incurred by the devil.
7 And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he may not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
To all of those qualities and characteristics Titus 1:6-8 adds that pastors and elders must be spiritually mature, faithful stewards of God’s resources, humble before God and men, and lovers of all that is good. And 1 Peter 5:3 adds to all of those that pastors and elders should be examples to the flock. It has been said that, “A pastor should be someone your sons could pattern their life after, and the kind of man your daughter should marry.”
Can such men be good managers and powerful speakers? Of course they can! But while those are admirable qualities that the church can certainly use, what the church desperately needs is men who can preach the gospel and teach the Word. But the one of the great trage-dies of our day is that the managers and speakers seem to be in greater demand.
2. What else would Charles Spurgeon see in the evangelical church at the beginning of the twenty-first century. He would see pastors who are more concerned about, “What a verse or passage means to me,” than they are about, “What a verse or passage means.” The techni-cal term for this is “eisegesis,” meaning “to lead into.” When preachers use eisegesis they are interpreting Scripture subjectively. They are injecting their own presuppositions and thoughts “into” the verse or passage. As such they can make the verse or passage teach whatever they want it to teach. They are saying, “What does it mean to me?”
Twenty some years ago Ginny and I were invited to attend a home Bible study in Walworth. It was being led by one of the elders of a local evangelical church. When everyone was seated in his living room, he read a passage of Scripture and then went around the room, one by one, asking. “What does that mean to you,” and “How do you feel about it?”
When everyone had responded he immediately read another passage, went around the room again, and asked the same questions. This was supposed to be a Bible study where God’s people would learn something. All anyone learned was that the Bible meant whatever you wanted it to mean. There is no point in going to a Bible study where the blind lead the blind. Likewise, there is no point in going to a church where the teaching is focused on what the Bible means to the pastor rather than on what the Bible means. This is no subtle distinction.
Pastors and teachers who “eisegete” Scripture use their imaginations to interpret the Word of God. They read into it whatever they want it to say. They ask themselves, “What do I want to present and what Scripture can I find to support my idea?” As a result there is little or no concern with things like context, the original languages, cross-referencing, or word studies. Here is an example of eisegesis – reading into the text something that is not there.
*1 Corinthians 8:5
5 For even if there are so-called gods (theoi) whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods (theoi) and many lords…
Mormons believe that there are many gods. Therefore, they use verses like this to argue that the Bible agrees with their theology. But, of course, it doesn’t. That isn’t what v. 5 says. It says there are many who are called gods. That’s immediately obvious in the next verse.
*1 Corinthians 8:6
6 …yet for us there is but one God (Theos), the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him (God the Father); and one Lord, Jesus Christ; by whom are all things, and we exist through Him (God the Son).
So that’s an easy one, but this “eisigeting,” this reading into the Bible things that are not there, is not always so easy to spot. If you are not alert to it, you can be fooled by it.
What should preachers be doing? They should be using “exegesis.” That means “to lead out of, not “into.” Exegesis demands that the text be interpreted based solely on what it says. While eisegesis calls for little more than the preacher’s presuppositions, feelings, and ideas, exegesis requires serious study. All of those things I just mentioned must be involved in any serious attempt to preach and teach God’s Word. The author, his original audience, the theme of the book, the context, and the meaning of the words all play a role in helping us understand what the Scripture means, not what the preacher wants it to mean.
Listen, please. God did not give us His Word so that we might subjectively analyze it and decide what it means to each one of us. He gave us His Word as objective and eternal truth. We need to find out what it means. Putting men’s words into the Scriptures (eisegesis) is great for those preachers and teachers who only wish to tell people what they want to hear. But pulling God’s words out of the Scriptures (exegesis) is the only way for preachers and teachers who wish to tell people what they need to hear.
Beware of eisegesis in the evangelical church today. It has been raised to an art form.
3. What else is happening in the evangelical church that Charles Spurgeon would warn us about today? He would tell us that we have a gross misunderstanding of what true worship really is. The modern church is suffering from a relatively recent phenomenon that seems to focus on music as worship. A music pastor or “worship leader” or “worship team” takes the platform or stage and says something like, “All right, let’s begin with a time of worship.”
What often follows is an extended time of singing (up to twenty minutes). When the singing ends the time of worship comes to a close, everyone sits down, and the service goes on. I know that the specifics vary from place to place, but that’s pretty common in the modern evangelical church.
But wait a minute. Isn’t it worship when the church prays? Isn’t it worship when the plate is passed or God’s people put their gifts and offerings in the box? Isn’t it worship when we listen to God’s Word being preached and taught? Isn’t it worship when we spend time together in Christian love and fellowship? And isn’t is worship when we confess our sins and come together around the elements at the Communion table? The biblical answer to each one of those questions should be an unqualified and enthusiastic, “Yes!”
Those are the thing the true worshipper does in church. But what should the true worshipper do the rest of the week?
1 I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.
The Amplified translation helps us understand what Paul is saying in v. 1. It says, “…which is your reasonable (rational, intelligent) service and spiritual worship.” True worship is the result of using your intellect, not your emotions. In other words, real spiritual worship flows from the heart. It is a conscious, deliberate, and informed effort of rationally and intelligent-ly offering yourself to God. Now, to be sure, such worship can affect your emotions, and it often does. That is certainly not a bad thing, but true worship is not driven by emotions.
True worship is an outgrowth of a full understanding of what God has done for us. Music may well be involved in that, but music doesn’t somehow manufacture it.
33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!
34 For who has known the mind of the LORD, or who has become His counselor?
35 Or who has first given to Him (God) that it might be paid back to him again?
36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
That is pure worship. Music can profoundly enhance our worship, but cannot produce it!
4. Another thing that Spurgeon would find in most of the modern evangelical church is an ever-widening gulf between sound doctrine and daily life. That is to say that the great doc-trines of the faith are rarely studied or even talked about anymore. There is this mindset that truth, the truth that is set forth in sound doctrine, is no longer necessary for God’s people.
It is not uncommon to hear men in authority say things like “Doctrine is as dry as dust,” and “Doctrine is passé.” They tend to see doctrine as cold and lifeless. A professor of preach-ing at a well-known Christian seminary once told me that doctrine should take a back seat to love because he said, “Doctrine is milk, but love is meat.” His point was that immature Christians are into doctrine, but mature Christians have gone beyond doctrine all the way to love. Really? Here is some cold lifeless doctrine for all you immature Christians out there.
1 Corinthians 15:3-4
3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…
That is doctrine. It is the very heart and soul of Christianity. It is the most basic truth of Christianity and it is what every man-made religion denies. If you believe it, you have set yourself apart from most other human beings who are alive today and who have ever walked on this earth.
So then, how is it “milk,” and how can you separate it from your daily life as a Christian? You cannot! That very doctrinal truth is your eternal life. If you neither know nor believe that, you have no eternal life. Listen, it is sound doctrine that guides and directs what you think, how you act, what you believe, and maybe more importantly, why what you believe it. In fact, your theology and your grasp of sound doctrine defines who you are as a person.
If you think I’m overstating the case, just ask yourself this: “Do you think a person who does not believe there is any such thing as right and wrong will behave differently than one who knows and understands the moral standards set forth in Scripture?”
So I ask you, “Why is so much of the modern evangelical church ignoring the great doc-trines of the faith?” The Church of Jesus Christ will not survive without the truths that are only found in sound doctrine.
1 Timothy 4:16 (Paul to Timothy)
16 Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching (your doctrine); persevere in these things; for as you do this you will insure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you.
5. There is something else Charles Spurgeon would find in today’s evangelical church. And it would break his heart because he spent his life trying to eliminate it. He would be deeply saddened by the average believer’s shocking biblical illiteracy.
If the average evangelical Christian’s faith is superficial and weak, it’s largely because their knowledge of the Bible is superficial and weak. If their knowledge of the Bible is superfi-cial and weak, it’s largely because too many evangelical churches have shifted their primary focus from teaching God’s Word to God’s people over to providing a comfortable and “non-threatening” venue for the purpose of both accommodating and assimilating the lost world. Many argue that this is being done with the best of intentions, but God’s people are starving for spiritual food.
With regard to today’s biblical illiteracy Jared C. Wilson of Midwestern Baptist Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri says, “…I suspect that a lot of the superficial faith out there results from teaching that treats the Bible like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Fortune-cookie preaching will make brittle, hollow, and syrupy Christians.”
Is this why 82% of Christians think the statement, “God helps those who help themselves” is found somewhere in the Bible? It is not. Ben Franklin said it in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1757. Here are some other evidences of biblical illiteracy –
• Joshua wasn’t the son of a nun.
• John the Baptist wasn’t a Baptist preacher.
• Joan of Arc wasn’t Noah’s wife.
• The epistles were not married to the apostles.
• When Joseph served in Pharaoh’s court, he wasn’t playing tennis.
• And just so is there is no confusion, Sodom and Gomorrah were not husband and wife. (But in a recent survey of American high school graduates more than 50% of them thought Sodom and Gomorrah were a couple. Think about that in light of today’s culture.)
Those humorous misconceptions, and dozens of others like them, are probably pretty harm-less. But Christians’ lack of knowledge of the deep truths of the Bible is anything but harm-less.
6a My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge…
Where does the knowledge of God we so desperately need come from? It comes from His Word. You’ll find it nowhere else. But today there are so many people who call themselves Christians who neither know His Word nor fear Him. But King Solomon said that the two go together.
7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.
What are evangelical Christians doing to themselves? They all have Bibles. The Gallup Poll says they all revere them. They just don’t read them. And so more and more evangeli-cal Christians are living lives that are less and less Christian.
Why would we be surprised by that? Far too many evangelical pastors and evangelical churches have long since set aside biblical knowledge in favor of appealing to the world. Pragmatism is overshadowing truth. As a result of that, genuine faith and humble obedience are on the “Down Grade,” to borrow the term from Charles Spurgeon.
So again I ask you, “How can you obey God if you don’t know what He expects of you? How can you obey the Son if you don’t even know what He has said?”
There is so much more I could say about churches hiring CEOs instead of shepherds, shal-low preaching, empty worship, the near abandonment of doctrine, and biblical illiteracy, but that isn’t for today. Although we’re probably going to revisit this whole thing in the future. In the meantime, what can you and I do? Let me suggest two things.
First, keep reading God’s Word in order to sharpen your discernment. When you here a preacher on the radio or watch one on television, or when you visit a different church or hear something right here at LBC, you’ll know the truth and you’ll not be lead astray.
Second, turn with me to the Book of Joshua and we’ll close.
8 “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and the you will have success.”
~ Pray ~